Lack of neutrality has other consequences for global information flows, which people in wealthy industrialized nations often fail to consider. Technologists in the developing world point out that if networks in the world’s major Internet markets cease to be neutral, poor and developing nations will be at an even greater disadvantage in the global marketplace of online content and services.
In late 2010, the FCC issued rules stipulating basic net neutrality standards for the United States, with a few caveats, but only for fixed-line Internet. Mobile Internet services are given a great deal more leeway to prioritize services and block applications. Given that the fastest Internet growth is in mobile, and that the fastest growing segment of mobile Internet users are lower income people who can’t afford broadband at home, the lack of neutrality on the mobile Internet has some potentially troubling implications for independent, nonprofit, and startup journalism. This is particularly disturbing when you combine this situation with arbitrary app censorship carried out by companies like Apple.
Traditionally, journalists don’t like to take political positions in public and many journalism schools, including Columbia, teach the value of remaining objective. Yet it is unfortunate and bad for the profession in the long run that news organizations are not taking a stronger stand.
Journalism schools might consider their students’ and graduates’ long-term interests and do more to speak up on this issue.
Meanwhile, as an individual journalist, if you care about your ability to survive and thrive professionally in an environment where you are more likely than not to spend at least part of your career freelancing or working in entrepreneurial media startups, I suggest you take off your objective journalist’s hat, and put on your citizen hat, and do what you can as a voter and a concerned citizen to let your elected politicians know that net neutrality and their support of it is important to you.
It would be unfair to recognize a great deal of work that many news organizations are doing to further the public interest, citizens’ right to know and journalists’ right to report on government activities.
A number of news organizations, including The New York Times, the Associated Press, and many others have been fighting hard against a growing trend of US government secrecy that the Obama administration has unfortunately reinforced despite lofty rhetoric about open government.
Yet another issue of policy and law on which journalists and news organizations cannot afford to be neutral is electronic surveillance. In the name of cyber-security, a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA), seeks to expand the sharing of “cyber threat intelligence” between the government and private sector. The bill’s language, however, is over-broad and lacks necessary constraints in terms of who the information can be shared with and for what purpose.
CISPA increases the chances that, for example, digital communications of journalists investigating abuses of US government agencies could be shared with those agencies prior to publication. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently warned that the bill’s language is so broad that any websites that publish leaked classified information, from The New York Times to Wikileaks, could fall within its scope of “threats.”
As journalism and journalists grow increasingly dependent on all things networked and digital, it is vital that we do everything possible to make sure that the Internet and all of the platforms and devices and components that are increasingly part of the news ecosystem, evolve in a way that maximizes free expression for everybody—professional or amateur—who seeks to create media. Journalists of all kinds must have some hope of being able to protect their private and confidential communications from politically motivated surveillance.
It is unlikely that people will ever be able to speak truth to power completely without fear. But at very least, we must do all we can to keep the fear factor from increasing by making sure that privacy and identity standards are compatible with dissent, controversial speech, and investigative reporting that challenges powerful governments and companies.
Just as all people are stewards of the earth, all of us are similarly stewards of the Internet. When companies, governments, and members of the general public act in their short term, economic self interest without considering the broader impact of their actions, they are more likely to act in environmentally harmful ways. It has taken a long time for people to get used to thinking more long term and more holistically about self interest in the environmental context.